Last week, in his first letter to the Corinthians, we encountered Paul’s Mr. Potato Head theology. There, he writes: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit…To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good…The body of Christ does not consist of one member but of many…If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” The “still more excellent way” Paul described is found in calling forth each person’s gifts “for the common good.”
You can probably guess why Paul wrote about everyone using their gifts for the common good. Because the Corinthians WEREN’T using their gifts for the common good, right? They were fussing and fighting; they were ranking spiritual gifts, saying some were more important than others…which, of course, meant some people in the community were more important than others. Though the spiritual excitement that had brought the people together was real, after living in community for a while, the Corinthians had gotten off track. Fissures formed. Diversity divided. The common good got lost in contentious competition.
Paul loved the Corinthians; he had, after all, started the church there. He was their teacher. He was their pastor. Paul wanted the church at Corinth to thrive…and he wanted the community to thrive because he believed that it’s in and through the community of believers that God’s hopes for the world are realized. But if the community was splintered and, functionally, no community at all, how were they going to help transform the world? The church at Corinth needed a reminder of what they were there for….which is why Paul wrote this letter.
Paul’s use of the “body of Christ” metaphor…it’s not the most artistic bit of writing in the world, but it does make the point. As the body has a diversity of parts, each with its own function, so does the body of Christ have a diversity of parts or gifts, each with its own function. The body–physical or spiritual–doesn’t work unless all the parts are working together.
I imagine Paul writing all that, perhaps congratulating himself on devising such a brilliant metaphor. Then, I imagine him pausing. And thinking. And slipping into a prayer for those knuckleheads, I mean, beloved children in faith, at Corinth. The metaphor was a good one; Paul had to admit that to himself. But something was missing.
Then I imagine the light bulb clicking on. Ah! The brilliant metaphor of the body…it explained the what of diversity, the logistics of it…but it didn’t explain the why—or the ho–of it. Why celebrate the diversity of gifts within the community? How to celebrate that diversity? Love. All of it was love. The goal of a fully-functioning body? Love. The means of getting all the parts of the body working together? Love. The whole point of the God-thing? Love. The means of transforming the world into the world God hoped it to be? Love. Love, love, love, love. The Corinthians had gotten so caught up in the flashiness of their spiritual gifts, they’d forgotten the source of those gifts, the point of those gifts, the reason for any of it–love.
So, as a follow-up that brilliant metaphor he’d devised, Paul either wrote or quoted the love poem…I Corinthians 13. What he’d said about the body and spiritual gifts was important, vital to the healthy functioning of the church. But even more important than all that was love. Love trumps spiritual gifts every time.
Florence Foster Jenkins was a woman of means…whose husband gave her syphilis on their wedding night. The disease caused nerve damage, effectively ending a potential career as a concert pianist. Her second husband, St. Clair Bayfield, was devoted to his wife…but because of his wife’s disease, sought relationships outside the marriage.
In the early and mid-20th century, life expectancy after a diagnosis of syphilis (or the number of years before one’s mental faculties were lost) was 20 years. Florence Foster Jenkins lived 50 years past her diagnosis.
What contributed to Florence’s longevity? Her love of music. Florence used her significant wealth to underwrite the classical music scene in New York City. Renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini was among her frequent guests.
Though no longer able to perform on piano, Florence did still enjoy performing. She sang. Horribly. No two ways about it, from an artistic standpoint, listening to Florence Foster Jenkins sing was excruciating. But for Florence, singing was a source of great joy.
Florence’s husband, St. Clair, knew of his wife’s love of singing, and despite her lack of skill, planned recitals for her whenever she felt the desire to perform.
St. Clair went to great lengths to spare Florence’s feelings around these recitals. Venues were carefully selected. Attendees had to come to Florence’s apartment to get tickets, so that St. Clair could vet them. The tickets were reserved, of course, only for “music lovers,” aka, people who wouldn’t laugh at Florence’s singing. Music critics for the papers also were screened meticulously. And sometimes paid for their reviews.
At performances, concert goers would listen quietly then burst into applause at the end of the evening. Reviews in all the papers the next morning glowed in adulation.
St. Clair and accompanist Cosme McMoon, had the process of performances down to a science…until Florence went out on her own and reserved Carnegie Hall. Despite all his efforts to cancel the performance, there was nothing St. Clair could do. The show had to go on…this time without the benefit of St. Clair’s careful control.
Thinking the performance to be a comedy routine, many in the audience laughed. Loudly. A critic for the New York Post wrote a scathing review of Florence’s performance. After the Carnegie performance, all pretenses dropped. The truth was laid bare. Florence knew then that people were laughing at her. She died a month later.
As I watched the movie of Florence’s life, I wondered why in the world all these people, including her husband, would conspire, essentially, to lie to her. Why would they allow her to make such a spectacle of herself in so public a way? Were the lies to Florence–and true music lovers everywhere–not cruel? Why on earth did they do such a thing?
The motives of some, of course, were self-serving—and predictable—they lied to Florence because they didn’t want to lose her patronage.
In the final scenes of a movie about Florence, as she is dying, St. Clair by her side, it all clicks. He engaged in all the subterfuge, he tried to protect Florence from the truth about her lack of vocal skill, he did it all for one reason–because he loved her. Her love of music is what kept her alive. Out of his deep love for her, he would not deprive her of that.
In an odd way, the story of Florence Foster Jenkins beautifully illustrates Paul’s point about spiritual gifts and love. God gives each of us gifts to use for the common good…each of us is skilled at a different set of gifts than others…there is great joy in using our gifts for the common good… But in the end, the only thing that matters, even more than excellence of the gift, is the depth of the love with which it is given. We honor God when we honor love. Period.
That’s a good thing to remember when we’re following Jesus–inside this community or outside it. Each of us has good gifts, exceptional gifts to contribute to the common good…but if we don’t offer our gifts in love, if we don’t honor the gifts of others as gifts of love (no matter how skillful those gifts are), then we’ve missed God’s point. Love trumps gifts. Every time. When love and gifts go together? That’s what transforms the world.
As we close today, I’ll read our text one more time. Before I do, I invite you to think of a particular issue or context. Perhaps it’s something going on at home or work right now. Maybe it’s a new diagnosis or a sudden grief. Maybe it’s an issue of injustice in the world that keeps you angry or worried. Maybe it’s something going on here at the church right now. Take a minute and call to mind one particular situation. (Pause)
Now, as you hold this situation in your mind and heart, listen as I read 1 Corinthians 13 once more. What does this ancient poem about love say to your current situation?
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Song Love, Love Traditional
The song will be sung in a round. The choir will begin. When Kim indicates, the pulpit side of the congregation will sing. When Ty indicates, the organ side of the congregation will sing.
Love, love, love, love. // The gospel in a word is love!
Love our neighbor, love each other. // Love, love, love.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2019